Teachers’ Peer Observations: Reflecting and Learning

A recent request from a building principal caused me to revisit my experiences with teachers learning from walk-throughs and learning walks in each other’s classrooms. I believe these experiences create great opportunities for educator learning.

Here’s the request:

 “We will be conducting some learning walks in the next couple of weeks.  This will be our first round of peer observation work this year. The teachers going into the other teachers’ classrooms (observers) will be the ones getting most of the feedback around a specific portion of the Workshop model; not providing specific feedback to the observed like we have done in the past.  Any help would be appreciated!”

This school’s design matches what I think is a valuable learning option. Learning is gained when the observers focus on student learning production behaviors and then reflect on their own classrooms.

When I facilitate these walk-throughs, I focus the observers in each case on identifying student actions.

”What are the students doing and experiencing?” …both collectively and individually. We observe about six-ten minutes at a time and look to see where we would place students’ observable behaviors on a continuum that ranges from bored to comfortable to attention to high anxiety (fear). (Additional explanation can be found in my podcast: Reading Student Engagement.)

I encourage observers to first look at the class as a whole, then groups of students, and then individual student engagement. How often are students at the sweet spot? A high focused learning state.

Just before leaving the classrooms, observers considered the teacher’s design and facilitation of the learning activity. How did design and facilitation impact student engagement?

This focused observation of students’ learning production behaviors is extremely valuable as teachers rarely can observe and analyze at a similar depth in their own classrooms while they are facilitating learning.

Having observed students in a few classrooms, teachers can share their “wonderings” and insights with each other and reflect on “what is happening with my students?”

Here are some reflections/insights that have arisen during debriefing sessions I’ve facilitated following peer observations:

  • When teachers observed in each other’s classrooms with the focus on students, they tended to report much more comfortable or bored behavior than they would want to find in their own classrooms. Several teachers later in the day share that they returned to their own classroom with increased awareness and spotted similar behaviors in their students. They stated that they had been missing these signs and now realized they needed to respond with modifications in instruction.
  • The time “cost” of an activity verses the learning value of the activity is frequently overlooked in many teachers’ planning process. As they observed their colleagues, the time it took for students to prepare the materials or organize for the learning event became much more obvious than when one was busy as the teacher.
  • In one school, teachers on the walk-throughs quickly noticed that teacher talk filled much of the time. In a 5th grade classroom a teacher placed a problem on the board suggesting students would do it. He then went through how to do it point by point. As he spoke, observers noted some students were doing the problem incorrectly as they went straight to work from his initial request.
  • Middle school teachers who had students taking notes from a board or power point often talked during the time that students were writing. The more interesting the teacher’s comments, the harder it was to take the notes. The students who focused on getting the notes frequently tuned out the teacher. (Consider the time students spent writing the notes…What’s the cost against gain?)
  • Teachers had observed that very little technology was in the hands of students. When students were on computers individually, they were consistently completing a “program” rather than exploring, searching, or problem solving.

Our goal should be to have the largest number of students spending the greatest amount of time engaged in the most productive learning behaviors. In another teacher’s classroom, one has the opportunity to observe for this in a way that one can’t while teaching a class. Reflections on these observations should raise questions about what I observe and think about my classroom.

Example: I observed students waiting for teacher feedback on their writing before proceeding…I wonder how much time my students spend ”waiting” that could be spent “doing”? How can I find out? What observation might I request from a coach? What might I change?

Creating opportunities for teachers to analyze students’ learning production behaviors, discuss their observations with colleagues, and reflect on learning and teaching behaviors in their classrooms is great professional learning. This teacher learning can mean more students with more time at the sweet spot.

Want to learn more?

Listen to my podcast on maximizing student learning.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 35 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…